Debbie Harry is an institution. All sangfroid dissociation, a radiating aura of coolness, the Blondie frontwoman has undoubtedly reached legend status. When your name is synonymous with punk, with new wave, tied to Studio 54 and the Mudd Club and Andy Warhol’s Factory, isn’t that really inevitable? Most know her for the hits — the disco-rock “Heart of Glass,” American Gigolo’s Giorgio Moroder-produced “Call Me”—and many more for her solo careers as an actress and a cover girl. But Debbie Harry is more than flashy name-dropping, more than a pretty girl with a good voice in the right place at the right time. She’s the essence of style in the classic sense, the prime example of crafting fashion out of personal charisma, a woman who turned the concept of “cool” into an accessory.
Punk fashion, the primordial soup from which a bottle-blonde Deborah Ann Harry emerged in 1970s New York, was formed in the crucible of the abject. After toying with the various archetypes of the 20th-century woman—Playboy Bunny, folk music flower child, working-girl secretary—Harry naturalized into a member of the downtown punk scene. Her style reflected the change of sensibility; in early fashion shoots with photographer Martyn Goddard, Harry perpetually poses on Manhattan rooftops, where impeccably styled punk ensembles (dark shades, graphic tees, bleached denim, slips) offset the physical vicinity of potential self-extermination. “Fashion should always be a bit dangerous,” she once deadpanned as a means of justifying a Michael Schmidt dress made of layered razor blades. On the cover of her 1981 solo debut, KooKoo, her expressionless face is rendered with massive metal spikes making symmetrical impalings. This idea—death-driven apathy as fashionable—is further explored in photos by Bob Gruen and David LaChapelle, featuring Harry as the unscathed survivor of gruesome car crashes. In Blondie’s Dantean dreamscape, mortification of the flesh becomes utterly vogue—“Don’t be afraid to let your body die,” simpers Harry’s character in Cronenberg’s 1981 horror film Videodrome, and one must wonder if she was type-cast.
Debbie Harry’s chameleonic style is her biggest asset. Blondie started as a punk project but later became disco, reggae, rap, dance, R&B. Harry’s fashion sensibility likewise shifted while still managing to stay distinctly Debbie. Perhaps the parallels between metamorphoses of personal and musical style are more than a coincidence; certainly, Blondie’s music videos are the best evidence of Harry’s style evolution. In the 1978 “Picture This,” she’s the archetypal ’80s girlboss: big hair and a Lil Kim by VFILES -esque cinched yellow dress, Ivana Trump caught in a wind tunnel on the way to a Mugler show. “The Hardest Part” sees a brunette Deborah, blunt bangs and black shades, her lithe frame donned in a black stringy two-piece ensemble designed by Anya Phillips, the founder of Lower Manhattan’s iconic Mudd Club. She’s a beatnik “In the Flesh,” a flamenco cult member on the “Island of Lost Souls.” Reinvention through fashion, now so common for today’s pop stars, is integral to Harry’s enduring legacy.
The paradox of Deborah Harry lies in the fact that her personal style is at once unpinnable and vastly imitable. The mark of an icon is her ability to inspire, in imagery and in thought, a legacy that long outlasts herself. Harry, still working and releasing music, has the pleasure of witnessing her own canonization in music and fashion. Last year’s memorable iHeart Festival performance by Miley Cyrus, in which the star covered “Heart of Glass” in an Anya Phillips-esque Mugler look, is proof of Debbie Harry’s long-lasting effect on the image and sound of modern-day pop princesses. However, Miley’s Blondie rendition was a somewhat inaccurate tribute; her avid exhibitionism, staggering and wailing over glam-rock bombastics, were a far cry from Debbie’s stage presence, all catatonia mixed with hyperactivity, an aloof platinum head bobbing sans rhythm. The formula is there, but no one can quite nail the same “X-Offender” X-Factor.
Within the fashion world—of which Harry has long been adjacent—her legacy is equally well-documented. Despite being otherwise disastrous, 2020 might have been Debbie Harry’s much-deserved renaissance. Even before the Cyrus cover, Japanese designer Junya Watanabe used Harry’s image as inspiration for his Fall 2020 show. Tulle and leather, two-tone hairstyles, black stockings, and strappy accoutrements were soundtracked by a greatest hits catalogue of Blondie classics in what was a successful tribute to her Parallel Lines (1978) -era look. That same season, Coach put on a show based on downtown legend Jean-Michel Basquiat, a contemporary Debbie Harry once had as a cameo appearance in her 1981 “Rapture” music video. Harry made a surprise performance for those in attendance, dressed in garments inspired by the same scene that she was instrumental in creating.
“So much of what has been written about me has been about how I look,” Debbie Harry lamented in her 2019 memoir Face It. “It’s sometimes made me wonder if I’ve ever accomplished anything beyond my image.” Of course, this is a misnomer; anyone with a pen game strong enough to rhyme “attack” with “sacroiliac,” that can pair the lyrical imagery of a “heart of glass” with the blasé scrutiny of a “pain in the ass,” or divine the yearning of the Instagram Age on “Picture This” is evidently more than just a pretty face. At the same time, the importance of iconography, even if merely aesthetic, should not go underappreciated. Andy Warhol, who photographed Debbie Harry in the same fashion as the immortalized Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, understood her value as a cultural tastemaker, the kind of artist whose style could radiate outward into the greater culture. After all, what is style, if not an image that may appear surface-level to some but is full of profound depth to those who know better? “All I want,” as she once crooned, “is a vision of you.”